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We Can Only Control Ourselves

What we can do is change who we are.

Key points

  • While a person is not in control of other people’s actions, they are in control of their own response. 
  • It can be hugely beneficial to one's relationships to focus on one's own behavior, rather than the other person.
  • Much of people's suffering stems from attachment and wishing the external world was different, so it's best to reframe one's thinking.
Photo by Jordi Zamora on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jordi Zamora on Unsplash

When I was in high school, I found out I had an ulcer. I kept waking up in the middle of the night with these intense stomach pains that wouldn’t go away. I finally dragged myself to the doctor to figure out the issue. He asked me lots of questions about myself and my habits until he finally discovered that I drank soda every single day. He said that was the cause of the ulcer and if I wanted my pain to go away, I had to cut soda out of my life. Once I made this change, my pain did in fact go away and never came back.

Now, I’m going to share a silly story—and stick with me because I promise there’s a purpose. Let’s say I went to the doctor and I asked, “Hey Doc, can you give me something to give to my boss so he stops scheduling me to work so much?“ or “Hey Doc, what can I do to fix my teachers who are giving me tons of homework?” She would look at me like I had two heads!

The moral here is, when we go to the doctor, we want them to fix us, not the people who are in our lives. We do this not because other people can’t cause us stress, they certainly do, but we’re not in control of those people. This is why when we go to the doctor, they prescribe us medicine, not the people who are causing us suffering.

Just like our doctors can’t control or fix outside forces in our lives, we can’t control the psychological stress people may put on us. What we can do is change who we are. When we struggle, we have a tendency to want to blame others for our problems. I’ve seen this countless times as a practicing psychologist. What I like to remind my patients is that we’re not in control of other people’s actions, but we are in control of our response.

By putting the control back into our hands, we now have a sense of power over our own healing. When we focus our attention on the actions of others, we waste our energy.

Let me use an example to illustrate this. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve helped many couples improve their marriages over the years. Here’s what almost always happens when these couples enter my office: They list the things that are wrong with each other and ask for me to help fix each other. Here’s what I tell them: “Imagine if all of your energy went towards improving yourself, and being the best partner you can possibly be?”

This is because it’s hugely beneficial to our relationships when we focus on ourselves. It allows us to look in the mirror and say that we like the person looking back at us. When we’re happy with ourselves, we can take the time to see if our partners are treating us in the way we deserve to be treated. I recommend when you’re in a situation with your partner where you feel as though they are treating you unfairly, to turn inward and perhaps get quiet with your own thoughts, or remove yourself from the situation entirely if need be.

Again, we only have control over our internal selves, not the external world. The key is to focus on our own behavior, not other people’s. There are many circumstances of life such as our parents, our socioeconomic background, where we’re from, etc. that we don’t have any control over. It may feel tempting to focus on these things that are out of our control, but I’m challenging you to switch your focus to the things you can control.

For example, perhaps you don’t make much money, and this is frustrating to you. I challenge you to zoom outwards and think about the people who make less money than you but are also happy. What this allows us to do is really get to the heart of why this lack of money is upsetting. In many cases, it’s our attachment, and wishing that the external world was different.

But, what if we reframed our thinking to be centered around making the most of what we have? We’ll have more time to spend with people we love, doing things that fill us with joy like getting outside and practicing gratitude and acceptance for what we do have.

When we focus on the things that are in our control, we have the opportunity to change our own thinking. A lot of the time we struggle because we wish things were different or we see things negatively rather than positively.

For example, when I drive with other people, they will point out rude drivers to me that I didn’t even notice. Maybe I noticed that they were fast, but I didn’t dedicate the time to even notice that they were acting rude. I am only focused on myself while driving, which is something that I really enjoy. I only have control over my own actions, not the impatience of these other Southern California drivers.

It’s imperative that we stop focusing on what other people do. We can create boundaries around these people to protect ourselves, but again, that is for our own benefit, not theirs. It is very difficult to change other people, but we have the power to make adjustments to ourselves.

What this looks like in practice is this—if you’re in a situation that is causing you anxiety or stress, you may ask yourself, “What can I do in this instance to make things better for myself?” Notice how this is very different than asking, “What can I do to make this person stop doing what they’re doing because it is stressing me out?” The solution to problems lies within ourselves, not others.

This may feel overwhelming at first, but I also think that can be an empowering feeling. It takes the control out of the hands of others and places it back into our own. We are in control of our reactions and our own happiness. And when we focus on improving ourselves vs. the actions of others, we’ll find that happiness is always within an arm’s reach.

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